Monday, 13 April 2009

Shrouding the issue of provenance

Could it be that the former president of a prominent US antiquities dealers’ lobby group is a Shroudie (believer in the identity of the Turin Shroud as the one (sic) used in the burial of Jesus after the Crucifixion)? On his blog Peter Tompa notes with evident interest:

“this Easter, the Vatican has weighed in with information that the Knights Templar hid the shroud for the period it disappeared from the historical record.”
Not being an avid reader of L'Osservatore Romano, I cannot judge what the Vatican actually stated, but the object today known as the Turin Shroud was not IN “the historical record” in 1287, neither was it “in” Constantinople in 1204 for any “Templars” to find there. The manipulated artefact has no provenance traceable before the period of the Black Death in France.

All the rest of the ‘Shroudie’ case is guesswork and special pleading which ignores and misinterprets the context of isolated and selected pieces of historical records used to support a highly dubious case – based largely on special pleading. In a word, not unlike the way portable antiquities collectors present their arguments in favour of maintaining the status quo over no questions asked artefact collecting. The lack of provenance indicating origin of the objects they buy from no-questions-asked dealers does not bother most artefact collectors, so its odd to find the former president of the ACCG not questioning the made-up provenance for this one object. Obviously even he recognizes this is crucial in determining whether it truly is what some misguided people represent it to be.

The Turin Shroud is a highly interesting, but Medieval, object. There is however no way that it can be linked with Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Any study of its external form, chemical composition and physical condition can tell us nothing about burial practices or anything else about events in the first century of our era, nor even prove where it came from. The lack of a documentable provenance here is crucial, which is why those sad individuals who stubbornly cling to a belief in its pre-Black Death origins cling so desperately to any mention of any kind of “cloth” which they take out of context (like that mentioned by Mr Tompa) to ‘prove’ their case – when of course it does nothing of the kind. Once again conspiracy theories fill in the gaps between what we can document and what some would like to believe. Like all unprovenanced archaeological artifacts, the object known as the Turin Shroud loses most of its value to inform us about the past once it has lost the information about the original context of discovery (or manufacture) – without which all the rest is the made-up surmise of the antiquitist.

There are very clear parallels with the way the Shroudies try to present their case (including their use of media like the internet) and the supporters of the no-questions-asked antiquities market. Interestingly, both have their most extreme manifestations in the United States of America. Depressing.

Of course the current story (in which no closer details are provided of the actual text being cited) is hype for a forthcoming book.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Oh my..., Over on the Moneta-L (sic) forum we find the following by a coin collector, Carl Zipfel:

“as a practicing Catholic I find it quite offensive that Mr. Barford finds it necessary to call those who believe in the shroud, and its origins, as "sad individuals" and "shroudies", and it tells a lot about Mr. Barford. He come across as intolerant of any ones opinion, or feelings, that do not mirror his own, and I will find it hard in the future to give any credence to his positions regarding provenance, antiquities, and collecting. It's a sad, sad day.”[]

Well, I do not know if I or anyone else really should be saddened that Mr Zipfel will find it hard in the future to give any credence to my positions regarding "provenance, antiquities and collecting” because I do not believe the claims of some that the Turin Shroud is a first century AD artefact! I guess any excuse is as good as any other for portable antiquity collectors to ignore other points of view over no-questions-asked acquisition of collectable artefacts. He probably would not like the animal-protein free shoes I wear either, or my haircut, or something else.

For Mr Zipfel’s information, “Shroudie” is a term used in the Shroud (so-called “sindonological”) literature in exactly the way I used it. etc.

I am of the opinion that those who cling onto a desperate belief in the artefact as something it is not – and use all sorts of special pleading to do so (despite all the evidence) – are indeed “sad” individuals with whom (like collectors of portable antiquities) it is next to impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The 'other side' in such discussions in both cases equally display a total lack of toleration of the opposite points of view and refuse to engage with them in any meaningful manner.

Here are the views of just a few more of the people who Mr Zipfel will presumably not want to “give any credence to”.

As for Mr Zipfel’s “practicing Catholic” bit, the Holy Church has time and time made it plain that the status of the Turin Shroud as a relic is a matter for personal belief, not doctrine. The Church has in a number of statements clarified that they see it merely as an icon. It is symptomatic that despite that some want to ‘touch’ through a physical object that which in the final analysis is untouchable. Again the connection with the need for personal possession of portable antiquities is clear. If Zipfel wants to get religious about it though, the Gospels make it clear that there was no single “shroud”, a fact Shroudies carelessly but consistently skip over.

About twelve (?) years ago I published an article in a peer-reviewed historical journal about the Shroud as a Medieval artefact. I am not going to give the reference here as it is a matter of considerable amusement to me that although Shroudies assiduously collect hundreds (literally) of publications in bloated bibliographies of even the tiniest most obscure article that can be twisted as ‘evidence” for their case, they are not so assiduous in gathering those that disagree with such an approach. Mr Zipfer will seek in vain for it in a Shroudie-compiled bibliography. It is nevertheless published, and it contains the reasons why I say about the Turin Shroud what I do (though over a decade later I would now write bits of it differently of course) and why I really find it hard to have much “respect” for the twisted logic of the Shroudie special-pleading and consistent ignoring and strained misinterpretation of facts which are uncomfortable to their belief which make any sensible discussion with them well-nigh impossible. All the more frustrating in that (like portable antiquity collectors) these people try so hard to present themselves as erudite, enlightened people with "science/ scholarship on their side". On the contrary, the scientific/scholarly approach requires looking at both sides of the argument with equal attention. It is clear that neither Shroudies nor portable antiquity collectors (noisy US coin collectors in particular), are prepared to do this.

Collectors like Mr Zipfel may seek (personal) excuses not to look properly at the other side of an argument, nevertheless there are some issues which really do need deep, frank and open discussion, though it is pretty typical that collectors like him wish to turn their backs on them.

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